Shangani mermaids who sank even the All Blacks

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FOR a man of Brendan Dawson’s romanticism, restoring the old order by beating Kenya, even more special in his home city of Bulawayo, was something the Zimbabwe rugby coach probably celebrated long into the night.

By Enock Muchinjo

Zimbabwe’s nail-biting 30-29 win at Hartsfield in the Victoria Cup last Saturday ended three-year dominance by Kenya and also ensured that Dawson — now in his second spell in charge of the Sables — maintains a 100% win record against the East Africans.

“The problem is when you cross the Shangani (River) coming here, there is a bit of a story that’s told down here in Bulawayo,” Dawson quipped in a post-match interview on the pitch.

“But ja, it’s great to have a chance for the people of Bulawayo, really great to have a chance. Thanks to the ZRU (Zimbabwe Rugby Union) for allowing it to happen here.”

Dawson — who was born 51 years ago in Zimbabwe’s second largest city and has spent almost his entire life there — would later enlighten us about the legend of the Shangani.

It is an old Matabeleland rugby folktale, he said, in which mermaids are said to have made life extremely difficult for visiting teams once they crossed the famous river to play against their Bulawayo hosts. The All Blacks, famously defeated 10-8 by Rhodesia in Bulawayo 70 years ago, are without doubt the greatest visitors to succumb to the magical mermaid charm of the Shangani River. “It used to be told to us when we were very young, and in our playing days, that once you crossed that river and you were a visiting team, there were njuzus (mermaids) that would always help us win,” Dawson said.

Before last week’s tense win at Hartsfield, Dawson had been the last coach in 2014 to guide Zimbabwe to victory over Kenya, that coming in a World Cup qualifier in Madagascar in a game the Sables were just a bonus point shy of qualifying for the game’s biggest showpiece for the first time since 1991.

Then came the Kenyan onslaught over three years and three Test games. Twice when Zimbabwe was under local coach Cyprian Mandenge in 2016 and 2017, and once during the ill-fated tenure of former Springbok mentor Peter de Villiers last year. Three is also a special figure in that it was the number of matches overseen by Dawson against Kenya in his first spell and winning all three: one in Harare, one in Nairobi and the World Cup qualifier in Antananarivo.

The win in Bulawayo on Saturday meant Dawson not only kept his personal unbeaten run against the old continental rival, but edged the Sables further ahead on the two countries’ head-to-head contest.

“I’m ecstatic, guys,” Dawson told the press corps. “It’s a big relief. (There was) a lot of weight on my shoulders. It’s a great one. I’m really chuffed to win this one.”

But just like in Uganda a week earlier, where the Sables started off like a house on fire before allowing the opponent to come back strongly into the tie, Kenya almost stole it right at the end, with basic defensive errors nearly costing the home side dearly. Tied 17-17 at half time, Kenya then led 29-27 deep in the second half with wave after wave of attack threatening to poke further holes in the Zimbabwe defence.

But once the Sables re-grouped, they spent the last 10 minutes camped in Kenya’s 22. Then a long range penalty by captain and scrumhalf Hilton Mudariki — with a modest-sized but intimate Hartsfield crowd watching in awe — secured the win at the death to make it three in a row for Zimbabwe in the 2019 Victoria Cup so far.

It has been a remarkable turnaround of things for Dawson, who had to endure the humiliation of being sacked last year by de Villiers as the Sables’ assistant coach mid-way through the World Cup qualifying campaign after the controversial South African accused the former Zimbabwe captain of undermining his authority. De Villiers, who had been appointed amid much pomp and fanfare in February 2018, only managed to lead Zimbabwe to a tame draw at home to Morocco and a relegation-saving away win in Uganda in a forgettable year that lurched from one controversy to another for the Sables on and off the field.

With Dawson now back at the helm following de Villiers’ sacking in April, Zimbabwe appear to have their mojo back. The Old Miltonians and Sables legend was however gracious enough to decline the opportunity to hit back at his erstwhile boss. “Look, I don’t want to comment on what happened last year,” Dawson said.

“It’s not my position to do that. But you know, we’ve got a great team. I’ve picked a lot of youngsters. I mean, there are 19, 20 year-olds that have put bodies on the line today. There is a great vibe and great cohesion. Everybody wants to play for each other. What more can we ask for.”

Zimbabwe’s participation in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge this year has, according to Dawson, brought an extra edge to his team’s game against fellow African national teams.

“Guys have got confidence now,” he said.

“I mean, a 19-year-old taking on the Sharks and then coming here, it should be a lot easier for them and have that confidence in their ability. So ja, every rugby competition is good, we are going to learn from every game. It’s massive, guys. When we were down in Cape Town (for the SuperSport Challenge) it was a learning curve. So if we lost narrowly like in a couple of our games, it was a learning curve so we would settle with that. But here it’s Test rugby. We have to win these games. We want get better every time, we want to improve our world rankings. That’s all we want to do.”

Three wins out of three has not gotten Dawson too excited, but one gets the feeling that the reverse fixture against Kenya in Nairobi is one he will do anything for to win and complete a double.

“Obviously let’s cross the bridge when we get there, let’s get through our injuries,” said Dawson. “Obviously, Kenya away is going to be tough. Uganda, too, at home to us, are going to be tough. I mean, look at the size of these guys, these are big men. Credit to our guys, we sucked up their (Kenya) energy, sucked up what they threw at us and our guys came out on top.”

Scrumhalf Hilton Mudariki, Zimbabwe’s stand-in captain, was also overjoyed after the Kenya game, dedicating the win to the troubled homeland. “I’m actually lost for words, so proud of my guys,” said Mudariki. “We are going through a difficult time at the moment in our country and for us to bring a bit of joy for the people of Zimbabwe means a lot to me and my team. So I’m just thrilled about the win.”

While results have thoroughly pleased the squad, another critical buy-in for the current group of Sables players is the methods with which those results are achieved, and building a solid base for the 2023 World Cup qualification quest. “Look, the game today was very scrappy,” Mudariki said. “In terms of our standards, we know that was not the best game. We kept them into the game. We could have shut the game quite early. A lot of mistakes and unforced errors kept them into the game. But we will go back, we will enjoy this win tonight. I thought we were always in the game despite the setbacks. We were creating chances for ourselves. We just weren’t finishing those chances. And in Test match rugby, you know, if you don’t finish chances you are going to feel the heat. We just have to look at the video, finish off opportunities when we get them.”

Scores tied at half time and the game looking like it could go either way, Mudariki revealed how the coach had delivered a typical sharp-tongued pep talk during the break.

“He had a very good go at us in the changing room there but, I mean, we deserved it,” Mudariki said. “We made a lot of mistakes, we had to rectify those mistakes. I’m just really proud that we managed to stick it out and got the win together.”

The Sables slipped several tackles to gift the Kenyans three of their tries, a worrying factor for the team and indeed an Achilles’ heel of Zimrugby for years.

“You know, like our defence coach Liam Middleton always say, defence is about attitude, it’s about wanting to make tackles,” Mudariki said.

“You can come up with all these defensive theories, (but) if you don’t put body on the line, if that guy comes running at you, you don’t bring him down, then defence means nothing. You got to make sure. A couple of tackles were missed. We know we need to work on that, work on our defence and keep improving.”

And then re-living the penalty, under immense pressure, to win it for Zimbabwe.

“Look, I was hitting the ball quite nicely today, I felt really good in the week,” Mudariki commented. “So I just thought I should give it a go. Initially I thought about going for the corner. Our maul was working quite nicely, but I just thought, you know, I’m kicking quite well, why not give it a go. But if I miss, they have to kick back at us, we regain position, so ja it worked out well for me and the team.”

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